Dudamel Masters Mahler’s Seventh with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

SwedenSweden  Mahler, Symphony no. 7: Göteborgs Symfoniker (Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra), Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden, 10.9.2011 (NS)

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was a challenging choice to open the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s last season with Gustavo Dudamel as their chief conductor. The work has sharp contrasts of mood, not only between the outer movements and the inner movements (the two “Nachtmusik” movements and the Scherzo), but also sudden changes in temperament within movements. There is also a wide variation in the sounds required of the orchestra; in a letter to a publisher, Mahler described the instrumentation as “modest…(four horns, three trumpets)” but neglected to mention the cowbells, deep-pitched bells, tenor horn, guitar and mandolin.

While there is always a risk of the symphony falling apart under these stresses, they do make for a gripping piece of music if it is performed successfully. And the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s performance was an outstanding success.

Gustavo Dudamel achieved a seamless performance, apart from a pause to retune after the first movement – a wise precaution given the length of the work and the exposed solo playing in the second and fourth movements. There was a deep sense of line throughout the performance, even though the sudden and often sinister changes in mood were in no way smoothed over. The concert felt a lot shorter than the 80 minutes it took from start to finish.

The first movement set the tone with the dark opening building into a soaring allegro con fuoco. The sudden return to the opening notes was done perfectly, changing the colour of the music without stopping its flow, and the climax of the coda was thrilling. The horn calls and muted echoes at the opening of the second movement were played perfectly (indeed, Lisa Ford and the rest of the horn section played magnificently throughout). In his excellent LSO programme note (pdf) Stephen Johnson rightly says: “If any of Mahler’s symphonies deserves to be described as ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, it’s the Seventh.” Particularly in the second and fourth (“Nachtmusik”) movements the score is full of exposed parts for various instruments of the orchestra. The level of excellence that the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra has attained under the distinguished baton of Neeme Järvi, and now Mr. Dudamel, is such that all of these parts were played very well. Apart from the horns, a special mention should also go to the Leader Sara Trobäck Hesselink for her solo playing in the fourth movement.

Between the dark but often lyrical second and fourth movements is a scherzo (marked schattenhaft – “shadowy” – on the score) that grotesquely distorts the usual dance rhythms. Mr. Dudamel made no effort to disguise the bizarre and frankly macabre score in his interpretation. The orchestra’s dark Nordic tones in the lower strings and brass section really came into their own in this movement.

As was the case in the first movement, the final movement of the symphony was a musical whole despite the sudden shifts in mood and from one theme to another. Somehow the orchestra had kept some of its dynamics in reserve for a blazing finale that brought the audience to its feet after the emphatic final chord. It is difficult to imagine a better performance of this challenging but fascinating symphony.

As in his acclaimed performances (recently issued in a DG boxed set) of Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Dudamel was able to bring off the sudden changes in the music (so characteristic of Mahler) while at the same time maintaining the flow of the piece. He has emphatically lived up to his reputation as an impressive Mahler conductor, which is good news as there is more Mahler (along with much else) on this season’s programme in Gothenburg.

Niklas Smith